Like any show with as much longevity as Smallville, viewers came and went–ratings dipping from 8 million to 2 million over the ten years proved that. Ask anyone about the best episodes of the series, and you usually get things like “Pilot”, “Rosetta” , “Memoria” and “Crusade” from the early years. There are lots and lots of people who left the series about mid-way through, and most casual fans you’ll talk to probably stopped watching it during season four (those witches really turned a lot of people off.)
It’s to be expected; people simply lose interest in keeping up week-to-week at a certain point. If they come back, it’s usually for the well-marketed “event” episodes–the 100th and 200th episodes, big superhero team-ups like “Legion,” “Justice” and ”Absolute Justice,” and the series finale. And while those are fine and good, just because they’re the ones the that get talked about the most doesn’t mean they’re the best the show has to offer. In fact, there are tons and tons of little gems from the show’s later years that casual or former viewers probably missed out on. There are plenty more (or less) depending on who you ask, but here are 15 underrated episodes I’d recommend to veteran and new viewers alike.
Quick summary: Clark and Lionel switch bodies. Prepare for slapping, insults, incest, four-barrelled guns and a prison riot.
Why it’s awesome: I wasn’t going to put an episode this early in the show on the list (the intention was late season 4 onwards) but this episode deserves credit for being such a standout, despite falling back on the old body-switch trope. While the use of the Kryptonian stones this season fluctuated between intriguing and confusing, in this episode we get one of our best peeks into what they were capable of and what the overall mythology could deliver. Clark-in-Lionel’s body takes quite a beating from prisoners and his liver disease, but he proves he’s got brains this time around. But Lionel-in-Clark’s body is what sells it. It leads to some downright creepy moments, including telling Lana he’d “pluck [her] succulent fruit,” or sparking heat vision by hugging Martha–in her son’s body! Tom Welling manages to play Lionel at the height of his villainy, and it’s so much fun.
Quick summary: Clark loses his memory (again), and everyone tries to exploit it except Chloe, who learns more about Clark’s “Super Wheaties abilities.”
Why it’s awesome: Season 4 had its share of flaws, but the end run of the season really holds up well—“Blank” is wedged between the hilarious prom episode “Spirit” and the crucial evil-Lex episode “Onyx”–but it sticks out for its strength in simplicity. We get a very raw and open Clark, letting us in on the psyche we normally don’t see from someone so introspective. The villain’s backstory is one of the most sympathetic ones we get. The Clark and Lana angst is there, but thanks to Clark’s memory-wiped straightforwardness, it’s not overwrought and has genuine emotion. But the real star of this episode is Chloe; we get a truly definitive look at just how loyal, funny and smart she is, and why after three years of emotional torture from Clark and the Luthors, she is still worthy of being young Superman’s sidekick. The moment she secretly discovered Clark had powers in “Pariah” was iconic, but her actions in this episode really exemplify her best qualities, and she’s used to her to the fullest potential. Her final conversation with Clark in the last scene to Switchfoot’s “This is Your Life” is one of the finest moments in the series.
Quick summary: Clark is human. Clark gets shot. Clark dies. Clark comes back and stops a nuclear missile.
Why it’s awesome: On the surface, this episode isn’t particularly monumental–Clark becomes human and/or dies a lot throughout the series. But dramatically, it works. The ticking time bomb backdrop keeps up the tension, and with Clark’s abilities MIA in one of the worst situations the town has faced, the stakes have seldom been higher. Even though we know Clark wouldn’t stay dead, his death scene in the hospital still packs quite a wallop thanks to the musical score, cinematography, and Kristin Kreuk’s performance. We finally get payoff from Lionel’s Kryptonian catatonic state, as well–leading to a brilliant performance from a very Marlon Brando-channeling John Glover. Lastly, that nuclear missile save is as awesome as it sounds. No surprise it remained in the credits for every season that came after. Overall, this might be the best episode on this list to judge in retrospect as it nicely sets up all of the arcs for the rest of the season.
Quick summary: Clark struggles with his father’s death as he meets Metropolis’ first costumed vigilante.
Why it’s awesome: This almost didn’t make it onto the list, but it deserves mention for being the first time we actually saw a costumed hero on the show, a year before Green Arrow’s debut. Angel of Vengeance (and her comic counterpart Acrata) isn’t a DC Comics staple, but thanks to being a stealth introduction to the masked vigilante world, this previously untapped side of Smallville was finally explored. Our guest hero’s story nicely parallel’s Clark’s journey after his father’s death in the previous episode, digging deep into Clark’s grief while still injecting some much-needed action to lighten the mood after the 100th episode’s emotional ride. Clark struggles with whether or not he could kill someone, an element that’s touched on before and after, but never quite like it is here. And the final scene with Clark and Martha? Simply stunning.
Quick summary: Jonathan’s ghost goes all Hamlet on Clark and tells him to avenge his “murder” by killing Lionel.
Why it’s awesome: After Jonathan’s death, season 5 took a big hit to its forward momentum and nearly came full-stop. Luckily, this episode re-energized it just enough for the finale. The play on Hamlet tropes was inspired–we even get a Claudius/Gertrude relationship by way of Lionel/Martha. It’s not a huge surprise to see who’s orchestrating it all, but watching Clark go through the torturous ordeal–on his birthday, no less–makes it easy to be emotionally invested. Though painful, the turmoil Clark and Martha go through, and the questions the events bring up about Lionel, are incredibly engaging. We also get a more clear look at Lionel’s connection to Jor-El, a development that forever solidifies his importance to the show’s mythology. Not to mention seeing John Schneider get to portray a maniacal version of Jonathan in the climax is just awesome.
Quick summary: Clark wakes up in a mental institution where he learns the last six years have been a delusion.
Why it’s awesome: Perhaps it was that this episode came right off the fangasm episode “Justice,” and maybe not everyone loves mindscrew episodes, but the fact that “Labyrinth” didn’t win overwhelming praise is insane…no pun intended. It was easy to mock Tom Welling’s performances in the early years of the show, but in this episode he’s a tour de force of awesome. Sure, the premise is very similar to that seminal Buffy episode “Normal Again” (that one occurred in the show’s sixth season, too!), but it handles the concept a bit differently by keeping the focus on Clark in the institution for the entirety of the episode, meaning no subplots whatsoever. While we never truly question if the reality is real, that doesn’t mean the episode is not incredibly clever; the little references to 33.1, Raya, the Justice League, and the Fortress are fun, and Jor-El being Jorel soap is just brilliant. This episode also introduces the fantastic Phil Morris as Martian Manhunter, and though his part his small, his inclusion makes everything even more mysterious. However, aside from Welling’s performance, two points make this episode above and beyond: the muted, horrifyingly drab cinematography for the asylum-universe; and the ever-present reverberating sound (and its clever reveal) that ultimately brings Clark out of his delusion.
Quick summary: It’s the day before Lex and Lana’s wedding, and we see it in pieces through the eyes of Clark, Lex and Lana.
Why it’s awesome: Theoretically, there’s a lot to hate about this episode. It’s the height of the Clark/Lex/Lana love triangle business that upped the depressing angst of the show’s middle years tenfold. But this episode packs in more character development than some entire seasons. Lana uncovers Clark’s secret on her own! Lex kills a man with his bare hands under a freaking church! It’s structured as a Rashomon-esque tale, telling the story of the day leading up to the big wedding from the perspectives of Clark, Lana and Lex, beginning with their respective dreams/nightmares. While “Justice” provided all the heroics and explosions we asked for, “Promise” was the apex of the the continually disintegrating relationships of our three leads. It’s dark, and not everyone’s going to like it, but that doesn’t make it bad storytelling. From the dialogueless teaser, to the final scene’s contrast of beautiful cinematography with ominous undertones, this episode is uniquely built and exceedingly complex. If only more people bothered to peel back the layers.
Quick summary: Lex and Clark are trapped in an underground tunnel filled with Kryptonite. They have words. Very harsh words.
Why it’s awesome: Character-wise, this is potentially the closest the show ever got to doing a bottle episode–two people trapped somewhere and talking for 40 minutes. Of course, we also have plenty of expensive explosions and slow motion effects, so it’s not a true bottle show, but it’s just as effective. What makes this particular episode work so well is the timing. Season 6 was the first time Clark and Lex were truly at-odds, to the point where they could no longer speak civilly, so having them forced to confront one another (and ultimately work together) is bound to be a ride. But happening after the fateful wedding only intensifies the drama. And while Lana’s dark arc doesn’t play out very well over the next two seasons, it’s definitely interesting seeing her use the lessons she learned from the Luthors against them. But ultimately, the meat of this episode is how it addresses the ambiguity in the Clark/Lex relationship. Lex makes unsettlingly good arguments for why Clark’s to blame for the loss of their friendship, something that shakes Clark (and the audience) to the core.
Quick summary: Lex kills Lionel. Chaos ensues.
Why it’s awesome: This is one of the few later episodes here that fans do respect quite fervently, but having happened at arguably the lowest point in the series made it so it never quite hit the mainstream consciousness. Season 7 was underwhelming at best, but “Descent” showed that despite the string of stale plotlines and subpar episodes, there was still life buried down in the recesses of the show. With one of the most shocking teasers of the entire series, in one instant we are propelled into the final story arc of the season. Lex kills Lionel in the first 5 minutes, and the rest of the episode wholly focuses on how much this impacts the characters and the world around them. The melodrama took a backseat for a very real, very detailed look at consequences. Lex literally faces his own conscience, and in a chilling moment we see his symbolic turn to darkness in a horrifying way. Even better, we get one of the best and most piercing arguments from Lex and Clark, leading to a solemn declaration of irreversible animosity in the final moments.
Quick summary: Jimmy catches a red and blue blurred photo of Clark saving Lois. Not a total idiot, he connects the primary colored dots and deduces it’s Clark.
Why it’s awesome: In truth, the entire first half of season 8 is stellar arc storytelling with a clear beginning, middle and end, which is why there’s three almost-consecutive episodes on here from that arc. Jimmy proves his worth in this particular episode, lampshading Clark’s love of red and blue and how bad he is at hiding his identity. But as it becomes more clear that Clark needs an alter ego for his heroing, the entire series moves into an entirely new direction. Though the transition this season isn’t as smooth as it could be, by the end Clark Kent and The Red-Blue Blur are two distinct personas, paving the way for his final transition to Superman, and it starts here. We also have a very fun and sympathetic meteor freak villain that’s used effectively in the B-plot, while other characters have some fun developments: Oliver overcomes his slump (the first of many), and we get a glimpse of the very negative effect Chloe’s Brainiac infection is having on her.
Quick summary: Chloe’s Brainaic infection worsens, as she slowly but surely loses all of her memories…except of Davis, aka Doomsday.
Why it’s awesome: “Chloiac” was one of the biggest surprises of season 8, and episodes like this really exemplify how well-done that story arc was. Allison Mack turns a terrific performance as Chloe gradually melts down. The brisk pace as Clark works to cure her, regardless of the consequences, keeps us in suspense. We get some cool glimpses at her greatest hits throughout the show, only to have them constantly ripped away (with some nicely rendered effects) leaving Chloe, and everyone else, an emotional mess. Jimmy and Davis both shine in this episode with their care for Chloe, though in very different ways and to very different results. Even in the midst of all this, we get a huge development for the relationship between Clark and Jor-El. And though Clark’s ultimate solution is controversial, the events leading up to it are far too entertaining to pass up. Not to mention we get a very, very awesome voice cameo in the final scene.
Quick summary: Chloe and Jimmy’s wedding goes to hell. Lana returns, but that’s not why.
Why it’s awesome: If you want to have a wedding not be totally ruined, don’t get married in Smallville. Ultimately, this mid-season finale feels more cohesive and tense than many other full season finales. Like “Descent” before it, this is one that been well-received, but for some reason it seldom makes it on Top Smallville Episode lists. It’s a classic “calm before the storm” tale; Chloe and Jimmy have happy moments and Clark and Lois have that almost-kiss. Lana appears for the first time this season, and while her final arc is certainly controversial, her interactions with Clark in this case are handled maturely and she carries some much-needed warmth. But then the final act completely shifts gears, quickly breaking down into a bloody horror story and ending the episode on an ominous, tragic note. Doomsday looks downright scary, better here than he looks at any other point in the season, thanks to the shadowy lighting and clever angles. The montage to VAST’s “Don’t Take Your Love Away” is chilling. And while the Lex story this season never quite panned out like it should have, the final shot that teased it is a massive shocker and leaves you craving for more.
Quick summary: Clark meets the Wonder Twins. Lois nearly finds out Clark’s identity, and goes into therapy.
Why it’s awesome: This is one with the Wonder Twins. Yeah, by its description, “Idol” seems like just another filler episode that introduces characters no one really cared about in a season where nearly every episode introduced a DC character. What we get, though, is an exciting, well-acted and brilliantly executed action story that pays homage to the Superman franchise as a whole. It’s nothing heavy, but it’s tons of fun. In a season where characters seem to be ripped from the comics whether they fit the show or not, the endearing Wonder Twins are reimagined in an old-fashioned Smallville way, retaining their powers and naivete while giving them an extra edge as 21st century hero worshipers. But the little things in this episode are what lets it shine: Lois’s speech, Clark’s glasses, the \S/ shield on a coffee mug, and the “Holding Out for a Hero” ringtone.
Quick summary: Zod uses a series of gambits on Lois Lane, the Justice League, and his own army, bringing us to a brutal final battle on a rainy rooftop.
Why it’s awesome: Like “Descent” and “Bride,” this is one that has received lots of credit from hardcore fans. After years of more divisive and downright disappointing finales, Smallville threw out one hell of a fulfilling, cliffhanger-y finale like the old days of tornadoes and second meteor showers. Major story arcs all come to a head– Zod and the Kandorians, the three main relationships, and the unification of the Justice League. But through the resolutions come new developments–a new enemy, a new secret-keeper, and a harrowing fall. The final battle between Clark and Zod, though mortal, is epic, and everyone brings their A-game. Not to mention this episode features the return of classic series director Greg Beeman, and it shows. Moreover, it brings the season full circle by paralleling events of the premiere, “Savior,” clearly showing how far Clark has progressed from the Kryptonian vigilante at the beginning of the season to selfless hero of Earth in the finale. If you want a lesson in how to make a tense, action-packed, smart and dramatic season finale on a very tight budget, this should be your baseline.
Quick summary: Lionel’s alternate universe counterpart makes himself known. Lex’s youthful clone is back. Martha goes all Mama Bear on the Luthors. And Clark gets a message from his real-life fans.
Why it’s awesome: One of the bigger problems with season 10 is its multitude of silly concepts that never quite play out like they should. So you’d expect an episode with clones and people from parallel universes to be a little dumb. In short: it’s not. Lucas Grabeel is adept at playing “Alexander,” Lex’s clone, second only to Rosenbaum himself. And frankly, the alt-Lionel plot, which began two episodes prior, is handled surprisingly well from the start. We finally get to see those two Luthor plots converge, and it’s awesome. This episode is also one big homage to the days of yore when there were actually people over the age of 35 on the show. Seeing Annette O’Toole and John Glover, two of the best actors in the series, back on screen and at the height of badassery is just a joy. Oh, and let’s not forget that this is the episode that featured actual Smallville fans who sent in Blur-loving videos to show their support for their favorite hero. It’s cheesy, sure, but it was a love letter to the fans by including love letters by the fans.
Honorable mentions: 4.12 “Pariah,” 8.18 “Eternal,” 8.20 “Beast,” 9.20 “Sacrifice,” and 10.16 “Scion”–episodes that didn’t quite make the top 15, but are still definitely worth watching.
Got any other underrated gems from Smallville‘s later years you think people ought to see? Sound off in the comments!